The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Jung Hyung-suk, 2018)

Land of Seonghye posterA rapidly developing economy dangles the promise of social mobility, but like a hamster turning endlessly inside an empty wheel, the prize is often unattainable. The young men and women at the centre of Jung Hyung-suk’s The Land of Seonghye (성혜의 나라, Seonghyeui Nara) are caught in an endless struggle of bureaucratic trials, perpetually stepping over each other trying to get one more foot on the ladder to corporate success only for something to catch them by the ankles and pull them back down again. For the unlucky youth of modern Korean society, there may be no way out of its relentless demands other than to retire from the game entirely.

29-year-old Seonghye (Song Ji-in) lives a hand to mouth existence working two part-time jobs – one in a convenience store and the other delivering newspapers. Too tired to sleep, she knocks herself out with tranquillisers and mostly subsists on expired produce from her convenience store job. Meanwhile, she’s taking classes at cram school, trying to improve her TOEIC score, and chasing interviews at corporations in the hope of scoring a permanent position. A health scare underlines the fact that things can’t go on as they are, but there are only two other choices open to Seonghye – give up and go home to work in her parents’ restaurant, or marry her similarly troubled boyfriend Sanghwan (Kang Doo) which necessarily means he gives up on his civil service dreams and gets a regular job somewhere else.

When we first meet Seonghye, she’s sitting alone in a park watching the surreal action of the other visitors rocking back and forth on the exercise swings. Motion without direction seems to accurately sum up Seonghye’s way of life. At 29, she’s facing the facing the prospect that it’s already too late. On the old side for an entry level position, she’s been struggling to secure key interviews but she thinks there’s another reason she isn’t being selected. Some years previously, she’d achieved her dreams with an internship at a major company but she quit before it ended. The reason she left was familiar enough – sexual harassment at the hands of the boss. She reported it. It was ignored. She went to the police and they did nothing. None of the other women backed her up and the working environment became so uncomfortable that she was forced to resign. Working in the convenience store, Songhye runs into an old colleague who reveals that her lecherous boss got a big promotion and is well on the way to mainstream success. Such is life.

Seonghye’s former colleague seems happy enough with her corporate existence, perhaps a little self absorbed and insensitive, not spotting just how uncomfortable Seonghye is with being exposed at her “humiliating” part-time job. Seonghye lies out of embarrassment and tells her former officemate that this is her family’s store and she’s just helping out while she prepares to study abroad. She tells the doctor that she’s a graduate student, too ashamed to admit she’s drowning in the seas of “hell Joseon” all while her solicitous parents remind her she can always come home though doing so feels like accepting defeat from which she might never recover.

Seonghye is far from alone in her troubles. Many of her university friends are in a similar situation, mostly unemployed or in continuous cycles of unpaid “opportunities” which never pay off. Suicide hovers on the horizon as a prideful solution to the impossibility of their lives while others embrace the cruel individualism of the capitalist society, accepting that you will need to betray your friends if you’re going to get ahead. Seonghye doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want to get ahead by throwing bodies to the wolves but the world keeps conspiring against her and soon not even this sort of no life existence will be viable.

Later, Seonghye gets an unexpected windfall for the most terrible of reasons. She has no idea what to do with the money – it is a significant amount, it might be enough to live on frugally (and alone) for a number of years. Should she invest her money wisely and live simply for the rest of her days or keep on running herself into the ground trying to attain corporate success and the social status that goes with it? Seonghye makes her decision. Suddenly her motion has direction once again. She smiles for the first time in a long while, shrugging off the burdens of an oppressive society and embracing her own freedom in the face of its relentless drive.


The Land of Seonghye was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Kim Sung-soo, 2016)

asura-poster

Review of Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness first published by UK Anime Network.


Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s a shame the title City of Violence was already taken, Asura: The City of Madness (아수라, Asura) is a place of chaos in which carnage has become currency. Re-teaming with actor Jung Woo-sung fifteen years after Musa the Warrior, Kim Sung-soo’s Asura: The City of Madness is, at heart, B-movie pulp steeped in the hardboiled world of tough guys walking alone through the darkness, but even if film noir’s cynicism is out in force, there’s precious little of its essentially chivalrous mentality to be found in this fiercely amoral universe.

World weary policeman Han (Jung Woo-sung) has been moonlighting as the “gun-dog” of corrupt crime boss mayor, Park (Hwang Jung-min), and soon plans on quitting the legitimate force to work for city hall full time. After helping Park “relocate” an inconvenient witness, Han runs into a problem when another policeman turns up and promptly gets killed, drawing unwanted attention to his shady second job. This also brings him into contact with a righteous prosecutor, Kim (Kwak Do-won), who claims to be hellbent on exposing Park’s not quite legal operations and ousting him from power in the hope of a less corrupt regime emerging. Despite his lofty claims, Kim’s methods are little different from Park’s. Han soon finds himself caught in the middle of a legal cold war as he tries to play both sides one against the other but slowly finds neither worth betraying.

The film’s title, Asura, is inspired by the creatures from Indian mythology who are imbued with immense supernatural power yet consumed by negative emotion, relentlessly battling each other in a quest for material rather than spiritual gain. The very male world of Annam is no different as men trade blows like money and wear their wealth on their faces. There are no good guys in Annam, each is involved in a desperate fight to survive in which none can afford luxuries such as pity or morality. Han emerges as the film’s “hero” not out of any kind of nobility or a desire to do good, but simply in being the least actively bad. Able to see the world for what it is – a hell of chaos and cruelty, Han is, perhaps, the best man his environment allows him to be but this same knowledge eats away at him from the inside as he’s forced to act in a way which betrays his own sense of righteousness.

Annam is a world founded on chaos. The forces which are supposed to represent order are the very ones which perpetuate a state of instability. The police are universally corrupt, either working for themselves or in the pay of larger outside forces, and the municipal authorities are under the control of Park – a vicious, mobbed up, sociopath. Prosecutor Kim who claims to represent the resistance against this cosmology of corruption is not what he seems and is, in fact, another part of the system, willing to resort to blackmail, torture, and trickery in order to achieve his vainglorious goal. Yet for all that, the force that rules is mere chance – the most meaningful deaths occur accidentally, the result of shoddy construction work and high testosterone or in the indecision of betrayal. Death is an inevitability for all living creatures, but these men are, in a sense, already dead, living without love, without honour, and without pity.

Kim Sung-soo makes a point of portraying violence in all of its visceral reality as bones crack and blood flows with sickening vitality. The film is extreme in its representation of what could be termed ordinary violence as men engage as equals in hand to hand combat until the machetes and hacksaws come out to combat the shootout finale, complete with the Korean hallmark corridor fight.

Beautifully shot with a neo-noir aesthetic of the nighttime, neon lit city filled with crime ridden back alleys, Asura: The City of Madness is a grimy, hardboiled tale of internecine violence fuelled by corruption and self serving compliance. The ‘80s style lowkey synth score adds a note of anxiety to the proceedings, hinting towards an almost supernatural presence in this strange city populated by the walking dead and morally bankrupt. An epic of “unheroic” bloodshed, Asura: The City of Violence presents a world which thrives on pain where men ease their suffering by transferring it to others. Bleak and nihilistic in the extreme, this is the hard edge of pulpy B-movie noir in which the men in the shadows wish they were as dark as the city streets, but find themselves imprisoned within a series of private hells which are entirely of their own making.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)